OAKDALE — Some people don't believe in ghosts, but some do — and finding out why was the objective of Wisconsin resident Chad Lewis when he was a psychology student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
It's not an easy question to answer, but pursuing it has led Lewis on a path of wild ghost chases all across the Midwest and beyond as a paranormal investigator. Lewis will present a program at the Oakdale Public Library Oct. 21 sharing a visual “road trip” of all the weirdest places he's found in Minnesota, ranging from UFO sightings to misty specters to mysterious creatures.
“Anything to get people into the Halloween spirit,” Lewis said. “I provide the background, folklore and my personal account, and I give people directions. My hope is they venture out there and decide for themselves whether they believe these legends are real.”
Lewis grew up near Eau Claire, not far from Elmwood, which bills itself as the UFO Capital of the World. When he began studying psychology, he interviewed some of the people in the area who claimed to believe in the paranormal, and others who did not. He presented his data as part of his research, but noticed that after presentations people would approach him divulging their own experiences with strange lights in the sky or presences in their homes.
When he interviewed eyewitnesses for his master's thesis, he found himself going to the places they claimed were haunted in order to investigate. Working with a partner, the pair of them realized that there were rarely good directions to places he wanted to go, and that the stories were often legends or rumors with very few solid details. When they wanted to buy a better guide to haunted locations, they couldn't find one in the bookstores.
“We said, 'If we want this, I think other people will,'” Lewis said. “It really was a shift at that time — most of the ghost books were stories about a town with no specific details.”
Lewis set out to fix this by writing a book of his own, which led to a state-by-state series, including “The Minnesota Road Guide to Haunted Locations.”
Lewis's process was to ask locals about the stories, do some research to determine whether there were real historical facts at the basis of each of the stories and visit the sites in search of his own unexplained experiences.
“Somebody reports that something happened to them at a haunted cemetery or old barn where some man murdered his family,” Lewis said. “We sort the fact from fiction, find the real history of the place, and dig out the real facts. That involves going to the library and talking to the historical society. I like to go to these places and actually see them for myself, interview witnesses and try to figure out what's going on. Most of the time we have more questions than answers. It's very hard to disprove or prove. We like to promote the legend, but then leave it up to reader to make up their own mind.”
Lewis said that it's rare that he's convinced a place is haunted upon visiting — frequently, nothing happens during his visits. He said he doesn't often get scared, but a few cases stick out in his mind as being particularly eerie and hard to explain.
“For example, I was on the farm of Ed Gein, the famous serial killer, and I was with two psychics who had no idea where we were going. They thought we were in the middle of nowhere, but they refused to get out of the car when we pulled up to this farm. They were picking up on too much negative energy.”
But none of his cases have ever resembled the poltergeists and demons of Hollywood horror movies.
“For me it's little things, just enough to make you wonder,” Lewis said.
One of the most interesting parts of investigating a reported haunting is the human element, he said.
“What fascinates me as well is these stories progress and they morph,” he said. “I talk to seniors who remember a legend from when they were a kid; then when you talk to teenagers in the same area, they give a much different version of it.”
Often when he gives a presentation, audience members share their own local experiences. He likes to check out the claims while he's already in the area.
One of his favorite places to stay in Minnesota is the allegedly haunted Old Jail Bed and Breakfast in Taylors Falls.
“I've never had a personal experience, but I talked to the staff, who reported all kinds of weird things,” he said. “They'll put their equipment down, leave the room and come back to find it had been moved across the room. There are (some) places, back when I first started doing this, that said, 'Don't put us in the book; people will find out we're haunted.' But it really has become paranormal tourism. People love to go to these places. That's changed quite a bit over the years as well.”
Lewis will present Paranormal Minnesota at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, at Washington County Library in Oakdale (1010 Heron Ave. N., Oakdale).